The first season of Vikings was many things: a canary in the mine of scripted drama for the History Channel; a story of hypermasculinity in a society with unique social mores; and a messy but impressive plot factory that saw groundbreaking expeditions, major shifts in power, dozens of fight scenes, and some murky time jumps. It had compelling internal politics that helped solidify it as an erstwhile Game Of Thrones for the SCA set, but its potentially interesting thematic studies of family, faith, and community occasionally ran aground (or got trampled under all that plot). Its characterizations could be similarly uneven, though the committed cast tended to sell the material ably.
And everything got overturned in the finale, suitably titled “All Change,” as illness decimated the supporting cast. It felt like writer-creator Michael Hirst was issuing himself an 11th-hour challenge for the sophomore season: balancing character continuity with the growing legend of Ragnar Lothbrok (Travis Fimmel). “All Change” faltered, using miscarriage as less of a wedge and more of an anvil to drive Ragnar and his wife Lagertha (Katheryn Winnick) apart. The episode left Lagertha a capable, wracked, pragmatic leader and Ragnar a suddenly ineffective politician so self-pitying (and self-aggrandizing) that he gets angry when his son suggests he stop sleeping with strangers.
In season two, the show tackles the consequences of that finale—and then promptly moves on. The geographic and political scope widens, presenting a more complicated outside world and providing Ragnar with a worthy foe. It also moves in more mythical directions, as Athelstan (George Blagden) finds himself confronting the ghosts of his religion, and the legend of Ragnar gets rolling. And as usual, a few characterizations are thrown under the wagon in the service of a good yarn.
Ragnar’s always lucked out in this regard, as we spend so much time with him that his inconsistencies begin to coalesce into complexities. His unshakable belief that the gods have taken him in hand gives him essential fearlessness, but—in his mind—absolves him of some responsibility for his mistakes. In the first season, Travis Fimmel delivered an otherworldly fighter with the electric stare of a cult leader. At the start of season two, he has a significant tonal step sideways after—spoiler alert for a 1,000-year-old saga!—Princess Aslaug (Alyssa Sutherland) returns, trapping Ragnar in an eddy of aw-shucks dudebro maneuvering that seems truly to befuddle him. It’s hilarious, but excruciating. Fortunately, he soon hits the shores of Wessex, England, which brings that visionary gleam back in his eye.
Not everyone’s so lucky, though. Contrasted against Ragnar’s rich proving ground, other characters get short shrift. It’s almost too bad about Bjorn (Alexander Ludwig), who spent last year wrestling with his community’s codified hypermasculinity, and now undergoes a time-jump downgrade from the sharply observant actor Nathan O’Toole to Ludwig, who seems to be wrestling with his lines. And it’s definitely too bad for Clive Standen as Ragnar’s discontented brother Rollo, Vikings’ appointed punching bag. Rollo slogs through his assigned plot points in between the Northman equivalent of sitting outside Dunder Mifflin playing “Everybody Hurts.”
The women of Vikings fare better with consistency, by and large, though so far that consistency’s also a result of not having much to sink their teeth into on the home front. Sutherland’s Aslaug is clever but slightly spoiled, while Siggy (Jesslyn Gilsig) continues to make the best of whatever she can orchestrate. And Katheryn Winnick’s Lagertha, whose magnetic determination and forthrightness deserve more screen time, gets entangled in cookie-cutter bad circumstances after a fallout with Ragnar. The incident is an unwelcome reminder that this show is often unsubtle about gender (remember Thyri’s arranged marriage to a shorthand caricature of the worst husband ever)?
For more believable struggle, look to Blagden’s Athelstan, who survived last season because Ragnar sensed an intelligent man of abiding faith—as well as potential boyfriend material. While his introduction to Northman beliefs was expository as much as religious, he was the show’s embodiment of spiritual doubt—a man who literally didn’t know whether he was enslaved or free. His attempts to assimilate have been imperfect, but he’s worked hard enough to be Northman that being confronted with his old religion has significant consequences for his peace of mind. (Insignificant consequences: he’s apparently back on easy terms with Ragnar, who offered him up for sacrifice against his will last season. Plot takes a bite out of everybody.)
But season two provides other, similar challenges to the themes of last year, in which Northman society was carefully laid out and traditions and taboos illustrated; much weight was placed on the binding power of law and proscribed consequences. Here, so far, things are murkier: Family’s a point of pride rather than an organic unit, and the community fractures more than once. And while the first season of Vikings was deliberately about domestic politics, this season looks more fixedly to the West—a larger world, and a more prepared one.
The West starts with England. Linus Roache, whose English King Ecbert is so submerged in bathwater as to evoke a waiting snake, is suitably patient and clever, with an outlook that feels like a major signifier this season: To survive, religion must be secondary to effective politics. When a bishop decries Northmen as unfeeling pagans who wouldn’t understand the value of a hostage, Ecbert cuts through the rhetoric and reminds him pagan Englishmen of yore also presumably cared about family. This king looks at Northmen not as a supernatural destructive force, but as a variable to be handled. It’s no wonder Ragnar lights up talking to him; for all that Vikings has fight scenes like Gossip Girl had parties, it’s always more interesting to watch him navigate politics, and Ragnar’s been looking for a worthy opponent to accompany him into the future.
While Ragnar’s influence in England is poised to bolster his emerging legend, the show is also making a significant shift to the wider world just as the players back home start to fracture and scatter. Vikings seems to take pride in narrative economy, but not everything can be solved with a smash cut or a time jump. Favored storylines get sufficient weight and heft, but balancing its disparate narratives has never been Vikings’ strong suit, and though it feels as though there’s a definite endgame in mind, the middle can occasionally be rough going. Still, with a cast as game as ever and plenty of plot to slash through, this year’s Vikings promises a sometimes-messy season as swiftly entertaining as the last.
Created by: Michael Hirst
Starring: Travis Fimmel, Katheryn Winnick, Clive Standen, George Bladgen
Debuts: Thursday at 10 p.m. Eastern on the History Channel
Format: Hour-long historical drama
Four episodes of current season watched for review